Steamboating: Thinking Outside the Historic Preservation Box

Ah, summer.  Many summers in my childhood I eagerly anticipated the end of June because it meant I could spend a week with historic preservationists, if you think outside the box when defining “historic preservationist.”  I’ll admit, at the time I didn’t think of these people as historic preservationists, but now that I look back on it, that’s sort of what they were.  What I mean to say is: I often skipped out on the last week of school and went off to hang out at a steamboat meet instead.

A crowded steamboat on Lake Opinicon, Ontario, Canada, June 1998. Photo: Innes Borstel

steamboat lineup 2006

Steamboats on the Erie Canal, Fairport, NY, June 2006. Photo: Hallie Borstel

Yes, a steamboat meet.  As in that antiquated form of transportation that was once so revolutionary and was also quickly overshadowed by other technologies.  Several times a year, steamboat enthusiasts get together to show off their boats, discuss steam, and have fun.  Steamboaters are definitely some of the most entertaining and helpful people that I’ve met.  How did I get involved in this?  My grandparents own a steamboat, a fiberglass Elliott Bay hull from the 1980s.

While my grandpa’s boat is a new build, there are plenty of boaters who’ve restored old boats.  Some have fitted more modern boats or tugs to run on steam instead (reduce reuse recycle!).  At each meet there are endless conversations that I can’t quite follow about what type of engine someone has and what year it’s from and what boat it was in before.  The men (let’s be honest, it is mostly older men who have steamboats as toys) are walking dictionaries on all aspects of steaming and are concerned with preserving the boats, a pastime, and a technology.  Some work with boats full-time or volunteer at maritime museums, others are purely hobbyists.  But they’re all incredibly knowledgeable.

Boats near Waterford, NY, July 2011. Photo: Hallie Borstel

Lake Winnipesaukee

Boat on Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire, September 2013. Photo: Hallie Borstel

If you learned about steamboats in school, you probably learned about the Mississippi River paddleboats or the ocean-going steam ships.  The boats at these meets are usually in the 20-30 foot range and can carry up to 8 or 10 passengers at a time (depending on the boat) but can be managed by just one or two.  Most burn wood, a few burn coal.  Going faster than 7 or 8 knots/hour (8 or 9 mph) is a chore.  The engines are noisy.  Sometimes there are water gun fights or impromptu sing-a-longs.

I would say it’s good, clean, educational fun, but you actually get rather dirty running a steamboat.

Craving more about steamboats?  Check out this list of meets in the U.S. in 2014 (spectators always welcome!).

Posted in History and Technology, Industrial heritage, Popular Culture | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Six Summer Solstice Sites You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

With the northern hemisphere’s summer solstice upon us, it’s time for us to take another look at the day from the cultural heritage perspective and at sites dedicated to the summer solstice.  And no, we won’t be talking about Stonehenge, which is probably the most famous prehistoric site with a relationship to the summer solstice.  Instead, we’re going to cover six sites that you’ve probably never heard of.  Why six?  Because I liked the alliteration (and June is the sixth month in the Gregorian calendar).

1. Arkaim – Russia - Discovered in 1987, Arkaim lies in the Russian steppe near the border with Kazakhstan.  Though many settlements were found nearby in the years following Arkaim’s discovery, the circular fortified Bronze Age settlement is particularly significant.  Not only does it show a clear, premeditated city plan, but some believe it is the equivalent of England’s Stonehenge because of similar latitudes and axes.  It’s said that Arkaim’s infrastructure tracks sunrises, sunsets, solstices, and equinoxes.  The inner wall of the settlement could probably be used with the natural horizon to track 18 different astrological events.

Aerial view of Arkaim. Photo: Arkaim Center & Museum.

2. Externsteine – Germany - Like Arkaim, the jury is still out on what exactly the Externsteine are, beyond an extensive set of carvings done on free-standing sandstone pillars in the Teutoburg Forest in the North Rhine-Westphalia region of Germany.  The carving were likely done as part of Teutonic religious rituals.  One very intriguing section of rock appears to be a chapel or chamber with an altar dating from sometime between the 9th and 11th centuries.  In the wall behind the altar is a circle-shaped cut-out, that aligns with the sunrise on the summer solstice.

Chamber or chapel with circular opening. Photo: Robin Jähne via

3. Ajanta Caves – India - The Ajanta Caves in Maharashtra, India, are a collection of 30 caves carved as a monument at the site of a Buddhist monastery.  The carvings were done over a period of six to eight hundred years, the earliest dating to the 2nd century BC and the latest to ca. 400 or 650 AD.  Of all thirty of the caves, particularly interesting is Cave 26, which is a chaitya or shrine/prayer hall.  In it sits a sculpture of the Buddha on top of a stupa (a mound containing relics).  Constructed probably about 465 AD, the cave is unique in that it aligns with the summer solsticeat dawn, the sun aligns with the axis of the cave and illuminates the Buddha.  Cave 19, believed to be built at the same time, aligns with the winter solstice.

Cave 26 of the Ajanta Caves. Photo: Ajanta Caves Facebook

4. The Pyramids – Giza, Egypt - Ok, so you’ve probably heard of the pyramids at the Giza Necropolis in Egypt, colloquially called the “Great Pyramids.”  The pyramids are the final resting place of the physical bodies of some of Ancient Egypt’s pharaohs.  The complex in its entirety includes three large pyramids,several smaller queen’s pyramids, and the Great Sphinx, and was erected throughout the 2500s BC.  The three large pyramids are dedicated to pharaohs Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure. Though it may only be a coincidence (it would be a pretty spectacular one), the sun sets perfectly between the two pyramids of Khufu and Khafre on the summer solstice if standing at the Great Sphinx.  Furthermore, this creates an image quite similar to the Ancient Egyptian ideogram for the word “horizon.”

Sunset on the summer solstice. Photo: Juan Antonio Belmonte via

5. Chaco Canyon – United States - Chaco Canyon lies in New Mexico, originally home to Ancient Pueblo Peoples and now operated as a historic site by the National Park Service.  It was a major center of the Pueblo during the about 10th to 12th centuries AD, when massive construction was undertaken, including housing, sites to perform religious rituals, and other significant sites.  For example, a section of rock at Fajada Butte in the canyon is called the “Sun Dagger.”  Unfortunately, due to damage in recent years, the Sun Dagger no longer accurately tracks movement of the sun, but it originally tracked the movements of the sun as the sunlight fell through a slit onto a raised spiral petroglyph.  At the summer solstice, the sunlight hit the direct center of the petroglyph.

The Sun Dagger in Chaco Canyon. Photo:

6. Serpent Mound – Ohio - You can probably see a theme here: most of the sites can’t be dated exactly or have many possibilities as to their true purpose.  The Serpent Mound in southern Ohio is another one of these.  It was probably built by a Mississippian culture sometime in the past 2200 years.  As the name suggests, the Serpent Mound is a snake-shaped earthwork extending over 1,000 feet in length.  It is possibly an effigy mound or some sort of calendarthe serpent’s head aligns with the sunset on the summer solstice.

The Serpent Mound. Photo: Kip May via Arc of Appalachia

These and other monuments are lasting, tangible examples of the importance the summer solstice held historically, though most of us don’t lay much stock in it today.  Nonetheless, it’s a popular time for celebration, whether as part of a long-persisting ritual or something new without a historical basis.  Where would you like to watch the sun this summer solstice?  (I’m fascinated by the Externsteine chapel!)

Posted in Cultural Travel, Heritage Travel, Historic Sites, History and Technology, Popular Culture | Tagged | 1 Comment

On Hostelling, Historic Buildings, and Budget Travel

We think a lot about where we lay our heads at night.  There are so many options, starting with the pillowmemory foam? down? small or large? Then there’s the mattress.  Sleep number? spring? foam?  Door open or shut?  We all have our own preferences, but when we travel all that  usually gets thrown out the door, especially if you’re traveling on a budget in hostels. Hostels haven’t quite caught on in the United States as they have in other parts of the world, where they are very popular places to stay. They offer accommodations at cheaper prices than hotels, but you often relinquish all sorts of amenities to stay in one.

Sometimes, though, you stumble across a great hostelor at least one in a great building.  I’m sure most people have heard of historic hotels, and there are national and international organizations to help you find a historic hotel to stay in while on vacation.  Being able to stay in an old castle, manor house, or simply a quaint historic home certainly adds to your travel experiences. If you’re traveling on a budget, like me, you’ve got plenty of historic options, too! If you look around, there are plenty of hostels hiding in unique locations.

I’ve never actually gone out of my way to stay in a historic hostel, but finding one is always a nice bonus and may be the deciding factor if I’m choosing between two similarly priced and similarly located hostels. Most recently, I stayed at a renovated 19th Century inn. Hostel Mostel in Sofia, Bulgaria, looks just like you would expect an old-fashioned Central European inn to look. Exposed timbers, dark wood, and sturdy furnitureno Ikea products in sight!  The building is protected as a historic structure.  While the interiors have been modernized, you can still quite easily pretend you’ve stepped back in time when you enter the courtyard that leads to the hostel entrance if you can mentally erase the cars.

Hostel Mostel in Sofia. Photo:

In Venice, too, I got to stay in a historic building.  The hostel I stayed in, A Venice Fish in Venice’s Cannaregio District, takes up the first floor of a 16th century palace. It looks a bit run down on the outside, but this is not uncommon in Venice for buildings that aren’t museums. You reach the heavy dark green front door of the hostel via its own bridge, and enter a cool, dark, empty space before going up a short flight of stairs to the hostel.  The rooms all have very high ceilings, large windows that don’t quite close all the way, and tall wooden shutters. There’s a small balcony from which you can watch foot traffic and the private gondolas that frequently pass by. The facilities at the hostel are extremely basic, but the fact that you can say “Why yes, I stayed in an old palace in Venice” makes up for that.  While the furniture has changed, the integrity of the building has been well preserved.

A Venice Fish. Photo: Hallie Borstel

And there are plenty of places where I’ve had my curiosity piqued, historic or not, like the Red Boat Hostel in Stockholm, Sweden. The two boats that belong to the hostel/hotel sit on Lake Mälaren, near both the old town of Stockholm and the trendy Södermalm district. The rooms are cozy and there’s no disguising the fact that you’re sleeping on a boat. Or the hostel in Split, Croatia, whose name I can no longer remember, that was located inside the walls of Diocletian’s 4th century palace. Even if the hostel itself wasn’t 1700 years old, the maze of streets you had to walk to get to it reassured you that you certainly weren’t in Kansas anymore.

The Red Boat in Stockholm. Photo:

And there are plenty more unique historic hostels.  You can stay in historic jails in Christchurch, New Zealand; Ottawa, Canada; Ljubljana, Slovenia; and other places.  Or in a castle, a monastery, rail cars,  or a lighthouse and signal station!  What’s the most interesting place you’ve stayed?

Posted in Cultural Travel, Heritage Travel, Historic Buildings, Popular Culture | Tagged , | 3 Comments

More than Just a Museum in Münchingen…

Zeina Elcheikh celebrates a small town museum.

Arriving in Münchingen, it’s easy to delight in the traditional architecture of the old houses and barns as you wander about. Behind the remarkable Rathaus (Town Hall), stands a quiet old building, a building well worth a visit inside.

Münchingen's stunning architectural ensemble: the Town Hall (left), the Heimatmusuem (right) and the tower of the church appears in the background

Münchingen’s stunning architectural ensemble: the Town Hall (left), the Heimatmusuem (right) and the tower of the church appears in the background

Münchingen is located in the administrative district of Ludwigsburg, about 8 Km northwest of the center of Stuttgart, Germany. In 1975, Korntal and Münchingen were both combined in one town: Korntal-Münchingen. The old school of Münchingen, located between the Church and the Town Hall, is no longer home to noisy schoolchildren or classes. Yet the old building tells plenty of other stories.

The main façade and façade of the Heimatmusuem

The main facade and facade of the Heimatmusuem

Built probably in 1643, the school was damaged extensively in a fire that had also devastated the church and many other houses in Münchingen during the Thirty Years War. As a result, In 1645 the building was reconstructed and, for centuries, served as a school. Until the 1960s, the family of the school teacher lived upstairs, while the two rooms in the ground floor were devoted to teaching, where several classes were gathered.

In the early 1980s, there was a dispute over whether the building should be demolished or kept. The majority of the council voted for the safeguarding of the building and therefore the preservation of the architectural ensemble that represents the urban image of Münchingen: the church, the school and town hall. The school was turned into a museum, The Heimatmuseum, which opened to the public in 1986. The museum features temporary exhibitions two to three times a year to keep it vibrant and animated.

During restoration, wo holes were made on purpose in the ceiling of the upper floor, in order to show the layers building materials and traditional architecture

During restoration, conservators made two holes in the ceiling of the upper floor in order to show the layers building materials and traditional architecture

The museum shows the changes in daily life and work over time, in a place that had previously been a village in the old kingdom of Württemberg. The museum’s significance comes from its dedication to the cultural history of the place. The museum showcases memories of the “Old Days in Münchingen” through the everyday objects and old photographs of the town: from old traditional clothes and shoes, to complete scenes of fully furnished and equipped kitchens and bedrooms.

Some of the  household items on exhibit

Some of the household items on exhibit

A shoemaker

A shoemaker

It exhibits traditional crafts and trades, which had in the past a strong relation to the social fabric of the town, in addition to their role in supplementing agriculture. However, most of these crafts do not exist anymore, outside the walls of the museum and its collection.

The opening of the museum has been accompanied by the establishment of the Heritage Association (Heimatverein e.V.), which has assisted in preservation and museum services. The Heritage Association along with the archive of the town, have closely collaborated to the temporary exhibitions of the museum.

In 1964, Korntal-Münchingen (at that time only Korntal), came into partnership and twinning with the French town of Mirande, and Tubize in Belgium. In 2014, the Heimatmuseum celebrates a half century of partnership, which is the focus of the current exhibition.

If you go:
Heimatmusuem Museum Info
Entry is free and donations are always welcome!

Zeina Elcheikh, Syrian architect, holds an M.Sc. from Stuttgart University. She worked with German International Cooperation and the French Institute for the Near East in Syria. In Egypt, she joined the UNESCO office as an intern with the Wadi Halfa Museum project. She is also a member of AiP‘s Advisory Board.

Posted in Cultural Travel, Historic Buildings | Tagged , | Leave a comment

When Memories Hurt…

Zeina Elcheikh writes about the loss of Syria’s heritage to war

While waiting for a Heavenly resolution, since the whole world failed to decide on what to stop or whom to support, my heart breaks for the sight of children—the same age as mine—being traumatized in and outside Syria, a country with an outstanding past, a sad present, and a future full of question marks.

In the sad present, where souls and stones have been destroyed, one finds refuge looking to the past. It is a glorious past, rich in heritage, with six sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List. That heritage, subject to tremendous destruction from the conflict, has spurred discussions and calls among experts to debate the post-war reconstruction of the country, its heritage and its devastated memory.

Among various sites in Syria, one has a special place in my heart, though it is neither internationally recognized nor listed. The horrifying pictures in the daily news, however, have brought a different kind of recognition to the Old City of Homs, and made remembrance for me additionally painful.

Old Souk of Homs 2010

The traditional Souk of Homs, in 2010    Photo: Zeina Elcheikh

The traditional Souk of Homs, in 2010 Photo by Zeina Elcheikh

The traditional Souk of Homs, in 2010     Photo: Zeina Elcheikh










Homs (Hims or Emesa) had been one of the Syria’s caravan cities, and historically served as a main commercial center. It is strategically placed at the intersection of the natural north-south corridor and the access route from the Syria Desert to the coast, through the break in the coastal mountain chains. Its location is also determined by the Orontes River which flows through it. Homs, the governorate, is a well-known tourist destination in Syria, in which two of the Syria’s World Heritage Sites are located: Palmyra and Krak des Chevaliers. As in the city itself, there is the citadel mound Qalat Ossama with some Arab fortifications on its upper parts, and lower levels dating back to the Bronze Age. The Arab conqueror Kahlid Ibn Al-Walid is buried in Homs, and the mosque named after him is the symbol of the city. Homs has also historical cemeteries: such as Al Katib, believed to have over 400 of Prophet Mohammad’s disciples buried in it. The city was a key point in the Syrian road and rail networks and a base for several major industries. However, its old parts have been—sad to say—one of the most bleeding conflict’s areas.

Um Al Zunnar Church in 2010  Photo: Zeina Elcheikh

Um Al Zunnar Church in 2010   Photo: Zeina Elcheikh

The Old City of Homs had been walled, with seven gates: Bab Houd, Bad Al-Dreib, Bab Al-Sibaa, Bab Al-Masdoud, Bab Tadmor, Bab Al-Torkoman and Bab Al-Souk. Only a few glimpses of the old walls survived after the Ottoman period, and only the remains of one gate survive in Bab al-Masdud (the closed gate). Similar to the typical Islamic urban cores, the Old City of Homs consisted of a traditional souk, hammams, residential complexes and many mosques with historical significance. The souks in Old City are one of the city’s most vibrant spots with all kind of goods, scents, spices and jewellery on display. A few old houses have been converted into restaurants, in a form of tourism investment providing not only exceptional ambiance, but also good food. Moreover, churches such as Um Al-Zunnar (where the well-kept belt is believed to belong to the Virgin Mary) and Mar Elian are among the most visited spots, but suffering like the other parts of the Old City from war damage.

The traditional Souk in Homs Old City damaged (NBC News)

The traditional Souk in Homs Old City, now damaged  Photo: NBC News

The Old City of Homs is just one example of recent destruction of cities and heritage in Syria. Aleppo, whose Old City is another World Heritage Site, has seen its citadel, old souks and great Ommayad mosque damaged by attacks and raids. Moreover, several museums across the country have been looted, adding insult to injury to a situation that, in the least that could be said about it, is heartbreaking.

Um Al-Zunnar Church Damaged in 2012 Photo:

Damage at Um Al-Zunnar Church in 2012 Photo:

Although my encounter with the Old City of Homs was for a project on a tourism trail within the framework of the Urban Development Program (UDP), all planning now has to do with humanitarian response and emergency aid. It will be along time before anyone considers any other contexts.

What will the future bring for this part of the past? Will it be another Oradur-sur-Glane, a witness to a massacre, and become a destination of black tourism? Could it be reconstructed, like Dresden, to regain a destroyed memory? Would it be a new Beirut, where the post-war reconstruction of its vibrant center caused social damage? Or perhaps the past, along with the present,  should be wiped away to move on to the future?

Whatever the future holds, a scar will remain, hurting, when one remembers…

Zeina Elcheikh, Syrian architect, holds an M.Sc. from Stuttgart University. She worked with German International Cooperation and the French Institute for the Near East in Syria. In Egypt, she joined the UNESCO office as an intern with the Wadi Halfa Museum project. She is also a member of AiP‘s Advisory Board.

Posted in Historic Sites | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The Ultimate Recycling Project

“R-E-C-Y-C-L-E.  That’s the way it’s supposed to be,” sang Tom Chapin.  With Earth Day just around the corner, it’s a good time to reassess how what we do impacts the environment.  Preservationists are always thinking about recycling, whether consciously or unconsciously, as historic preservation is inherently “the ultimate recycling project.”

By nature, historic preservation is much more sustainable than building from scratch.  By using existing structures, you reduce waste and conserve energy.

NYC - Battery: Battery Maritime Building

New York City’s Battery Maritime Building, restored beginning in 2001. Flickr Photo by Wally Gobetz

How exactly does adaptive reuse differ in environmental impact from new building projects?  A study by the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Preservation Green Lab put it simply: “Building reuse almost always yields fewer environmental impacts than new construction when comparing similar size and functionality.”  Of course, the exact amount of environmental savings depends on the specific building and location, but overall environmental savings for reused buildings can be up to 46% higher when compared to newly built structures.

Historic structures even perform better than most “green” buildings when looking at the immediate climate-change impact.  Green buildings—those more than 30% energy efficient than the average building—can take up to eighty years to cancel out the negative effects of the construction-from-scratch process.  When you adapt and retrofit, you lose many of those negative impacts that are part of the initial construction process.

Bunces Barn

Bunces Barn was restored in 2005/6 using traditional methods appropriate to the buildings age.   Flickr photo by FranserElliot

Traditional building materials also tend to be extremely durable, even more so than some modern equivalents.  Many historic structures were designed to deal with changes in light and temperature without modern conveniences like electricity, air conditioning, and central heating, making them more energy efficient.  A deep front porch?  Not just a nice place to sit and chat, but also a way to keep a building’s exterior cool and out of direct sunlight.  Glazed interior windows and doors?  Not a product of some outdated trend, just a means for letting in natural light while still giving privacy.

The bottom line?  When possible, reuse and adapt structures, as it will do more than just preserve the historic fabric of a community.  So, on the occasion of Earth Day 2014, don’t forget: buildings can be recycled, too!


The Greenest Building: Quantifying the Environmental Value of Adaptive Reuse (Executive Summary) by Preservation Green Lab

Quantifying the Value of Building Reuse A Life Cycle Assessment of Rehabilitation and New Construction by Quantis

 Illustrated Guidelines on Sustainability for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings by the U.S. Department of the Interior

Posted in Building Conservation, Historic Preservation | Tagged | 2 Comments

Defining “Heritage Travel”

Itchy feet.  Wanderlust.  The travel bug.  There are many names for the desire to travel. And now, more than ever, there are a myriad of different ways you can satisfy that desire.  There’s adventure traveling and voluntourism and eco-tourism and medical tourism and heritage tourism, just to name a few.

Adventures in Preservation’s trips, for example, give participants a chance to partake of purposeful heritage travel.  But what is heritage travel, really?  A big part of heritage travel at AiP comes from the opportunities jammers have to get their hands dirty and to feel—literally—the history of a place, be it the Bronx, Albania, Italy, or anywhere in between.

Working on plaster restoration at an AiP workshop in Albania in September 2010. Photo: AiP.

Working on plaster restoration at an AiP project in Albania in September 2010. Photo: AiP.

This tangibility is important, but it’s not the only defining characteristic of heritage travel.  The chance to do hands-on history through preservation and conservation projects is a wonderful thing and offers many one-of-a-kind experiences.  But there is so much more to heritage travel, things that are a part of Adventures in Preservation trips and can also easily be a part of your next travel adventure, no matter where you’re going or with whom.

The ever-trusty source Wikipedia gives the following definition for heritage tourism, citing the U.S. National Trust for Historic Preservation: “travelling to experience the places and activities that authentically represent the stories and people of the past.”  Of course, you can crack open a history book to learn about the past experiences of a people, but getting up close and personal, as it were, brings those textbook concepts to life.

This includes tangible physical structures and material goods, and the less-tangible cultural traditions like food, music, and dance.  Those less-tangible aspects of culture have the advantage of being transportable, but if your goal is to have the most authentic experience and to gain the highest level of cultural understanding, then I don’t thinking whipping up some Barilla pasta in your kitchen counts as really experiencing Italian culture.  Without getting into the ongoing debate facing our globalized, digital world of what exactly authenticity is, I think it’s safe to say that eating pasta in a medieval Italian palazzo heightens the experience.

Breakfast at Palazzo Galletti Photo: Ortolan Studio

Breakfast at Palazzo Galletti, Serravalle VT, Italy  Photo: Ortolan Studio

Connecting to a sense of place goes beyond eating delicious food in historic locations.  Music, dance, folk art, and crafts play important roles in many cultures, and experiencing them is a vital part of heritage travel.  No matter how well you may think you know a place, there are sure to be new, unique cultural traditions to discover.

There’s another aspect to heritage travel, too.  Traveling to connect not just with a culture or cultural history but rather to connect with your own personal cultural history and family tree is becoming increasingly popular.  This often includes traveling to get to know traditional cultures, along with trips to see old churches, cemeteries, and houses.

Heritage travel encompasses both the tangible and the intangible aspects of cultural—feeling the past through work or study of buildings, art, and material culture, and “feeling” out the community, the people, and the traditions.  It’s digging up a plantation house in Virginia, studying frescoes in Italy, and plastering Ottoman-era houses in Albania.  It’s checking out the local market in Turkey, visiting a Catholic cemetery on All Saints’ Day in Poland, observing a demonstration of traditional Croatian dance just yards from the Adriatic coast, and cowering from people dressed up as violent Alpine spirits.  And that’s just a start.

Sankt Florianer Krampuslauf

The Alpine spirits come out in Austria just before Christmas. Photo: Hallie Borstel

Learn More

Adventures in Preservation – Heritage travel with purpose

Posted in Cultural Travel, Experiential Travel, Heritage Travel, Volunteer Vacations | Tagged | Leave a comment